Ravens' division bid blocked by Bengals

CINCINNATI -- Instead of manufacturing a victory that would have placed a stranglehold on an AFC North title, the Baltimore Ravens looked flat and got flattened on national television Thursday night by the Cincinnati Bengals. Instead of sporting championship caps and T-shirts in the locker room as linebacker Bart Scott had envisioned, the Ravens departed Paul Brown Stadium with a 13-7 defeat

They returned to Baltimore with an undesirable inventory of head-scratching memories and regrets.
Between a confused defense that had no answers for flamboyant Cincinnati receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, quarterback Steve McNair uncorking multiple errant throws and special teams hit with the calamity of return specialist B.J. Sams' broken right fibula and long snapper Matt Katula's low snap on a field goal attempt, it was an uncharacteristically sloppy outing before 65,973 that ended a five-game winning streak.
The chilly, rainy conditions matched the Ravens' mood.
"We missed an opportunity," Scott said. "Whenever you've got an opportunity to clinch something, you don't want to have to wait to take care of your business.
"Maybe we'll see them again. I'd play them every game of the week. This train ain't stopping for nobody. Our destiny is still in our hands."
Desperate to keep their wild-card playoff hopes alive, the Bengals (7-5) consistently beat the Ravens (9-3) to the punch with superior intensity, concentration and tempo.
Now, the Ravens have dropped a half-game behind the San Diego Chargers for the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC. With four games remaining in the regular season, it will take the Ravens at least two weeks to clinch the division title and earn the corresponding automatic playoff berth.
The Bengals derailed the Ravens' bid to become the earliest NFL team to clinch a playoff berth this season and the second-fastest to qualify for the postseason in league history since the advent of an eight-division format in 2002.
"It's a disappointment always when you miss an opportunity," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We will have more opportunities. It's always disappointing when you miss an opportunity to capture a division. Fortunately, we're still in a position where we can still control that going forward. We don't have to rely on anybody else."
With McNair's 36-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Mason with one minute remaining, Baltimore narrowly avoided its first shutout ever against the Bengals and its first shutout since a 25-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002. Mason dashed past flailing rookie cornerback Johnathan Joseph to finally get Baltimore on the scoreboard.
"We didn't get things started, it wasn't frustrating," said McNair, who completed just 26 of 43 passes for 227 yards. "We couldn't get into the things we wanted to do. We made too many penalties. We got backed up with false starts. You can't win ballgames like that."
Baltimore committed nine penalties for 64 yards. The Ravens converted just 5 of 16 third downs (31 percent) as they generated 316 yards of total offense on 63 plays.
McNair was nearly intercepted several times, but the Bengals' secondary kept dropping the football.
"I couldn't get anything going," Billick said. "I couldn't get us into a rhythm. It's my responsibility to get that rhythm going."
The decisive blow was struck when Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer located Houshmandzadeh 40 yards downfield behind safety Ed Reed for a flea-flicker touchdown pass after running back Rudi Johnson flipped it back to the All-Pro passer in the third quarter. Reed trailed the play after cornerback Chris McAlister attacked the line of scrimmage after the handoff.
"It's really too hard to explain," McAlister said when asked what happened on the play. "We lost, obviously we didn't play well enough."
It was Houshmandzadeh who boldly insisted that the Bengals were the superior team despite the Ravens' 26-20 victory Nov. 5 at M&T Bank Stadium, a point he reiterated all week.
"I'm not going to boast and brag," Houshmandzadeh said afterward. "I felt we were the better team, and I think we proved that tonight. That being said, Baltimore is a hell of a team."
Houshmandzadeh caught a game-high 10 passes for 106 yards as Johnson registered an additional eight receptions for 91 yards.
"Those guys are real characters," rookie safety Dawan Landry said of the trash-talking duo. "That's part of the game."
The Ravens ended the first half in sloppy fashion as kicker Matt Stover pushed a 29-yard attempt wide left as Katula's low snap skidded into holder Sam Koch's hands, throwing off the timing.
"I didn't execute, I didn't give it a chance," Katula said.
When asked if a wet ball affected his snap, Katula replied: "It doesn't matter if the ball is wet or dry. That's my job. I would love to make it perfect every time."
Despite the circumstances, Stover insisted: "I need to make that kick."
It was a rough sequence even before Katula's miscue.
After McNair completed a 9-yard pass to tight end Todd Heap to give Baltimore a 3rd-and-1 at the Bengals' 11-yard line with 13 seconds remaining, he spiked the football to stop the clock instead of taking a shot in the end zone.
When asked about that decision, Billick said: "You run a risk. At that point, all you can do is get an end-zone shot. Do you get the ball off in time? At that point, it's prudent to kill the clock."
Stover missed after the poor snap following a Cincinnati timeout with the Bengals owning a 6-0 lead at halftime.
Meanwhile, Sams broke his right leg in the first half and is out for the season. His leg was immediately placed in a protective air cast and he was carted off the field with running back Musa Smith replacing him on kickoffs and nickel back Corey Ivy filling in on punts.
"Huge, huge, you're talking about one of the great return guys in the game right now," Billick said. "We'll adapt."
With Palmer and Johnson off to an electrifying start, they created two scoring drives and a 6-0 advantage as Palmer completed 15 of his first 20 passes for 160 yards.
Johnson had already caught seven passes for 87 yards by the time Shayne Graham converted his second field goal, a 27-yarder that staked Cincinnati to a 6-0 lead with five minutes remaining the first half.
Following a 12-play, 60-yard drive that lasted six minutes and 14 seconds and featured four first downs, the Ravens looked as if they were out of answers on defense.
Ultimately, the Bengals had to settle for a 23-yard Graham field goal to open the scoring on the first play of the second quarter despite prime field position deep in Baltimore territory.
Graham's kick capped a 14-play, 77-yard drive that included five first downs and lasted 7 minutes and three seconds.
With Baltimore threatening midway through the fourth quarter on 4th-and-3 at the Bengals' 11-yard line, McNair's slant pass to Mark Clayton was broken up by cornerback Tory James.
"We got outplayed," Clayton said. "Cincinnati came out and played a great game. We have to go forward."
Ivy muffed a punt late in the fourth quarter, but Graham missed a field goal.
On the ensuing drive, McNair located Mason downfield to get Baltimore on the scoreboard. A subsequent onside kick was recovered by Cincinnati.
"We can't make that many mistakes," Mason said. "It's disappointing, but we have bigger goals than just winning the division. If our goal was to just win the division, we would be devastated. Our goal is to win a championship."
NOTES: Ravens fullback Justin Green sprained his knee and didn't return. … Offensive guard Jason Brown left the game with a leg injury and was replaced for a few series at left guard by Ikechuku Ndukwe, but returned. … Offensive guard Keydrick Vincent (groin) and tight end Daniel Wilcox (hamstring) were deactivated. … Rookie Chris Chester replaced Vincent in the starting lineup for the third consecutive game. He was flagged for a false-start penalty. ... Rookie blocking tight end Quinn Sypniewski took Wilcox's place. … Baltimore also deactivated cornerback David Pittman, running backs Cory Ross and P. J. Daniels, wide receiver Devard Darling, linebacker Dan Cody (posterior cruciate ligament) and defensive tackle Justin Bannan (toe). … The Bengals scratched five injured starters, including offensive tackle Levi Jones, center Rich Braham, offensive guard Bobbie Williams, cornerback Deltha O'Neal and defensive tackle John Thornton.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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